So, you want to be an archaeologist in Cambodia?

This post was most recently updated in December 2019.


*Updated February 2016*

After getting quite a few emails from people who are interested in doing archaeology in Cambodia.  I thought I’d post my response here to share more widely and see if anyone else has additional advice to give people who are interested in studying archaeology in Cambodia/Southeast Asia. There’s more after the jump.


*This advice is based on my experience, your mileage may vary.  I highly encourage you to speak with as many people about this as possible and weigh the various options


Q. I would like to volunteer on an archaeological project in Cambodia! 

A. Unfortunately, there are currently no fieldwork projects to meet your needs in Cambodia.  As of 2018-2020 we are taking volunteers on our fieldwork project in Battambang through the Earthwatch Institute. More information can be found here. 2020 is currently the last season we are taking volunteers. 

Generally speaking, fieldwork budgets are carefully planned in advance and there is little wiggle room to add new people. Additionally, unless you are already experienced or have a particular skill set, training volunteers is time consuming.  I personally feel such efforts should be focused on training and giving experience to Cambodian archaeology students.

However, the organization Earthwatch allows people to volunteer for archaeological research projects.  There used to be an Earthwatch project in Northeast Thailand, which doesn’t seem to be running at the moment.  However, there are projects elsewhere.

If you are student, you may be able to attend a field school. In the past, a few field schools have offered opportunities to work in Southeast Asia. You can check listings at the following websites:

Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin


Institute for Field Research

For 2016, there is an Institute for Field Research Field School in Ifugao, Philippines. More information is here.


Q. I’m thinking about a graduate degree studying Southeast Asian archaeology, what are some good programs?

There are lots of great Anthropology/Archaeology programs that have faculty who work and do research in Southeast Asia.  There is a list of US/Canada based programs on the AASEAA website [This is somewhat out of date].  If you’re thinking of programs outside the US I can think of University of Sydney, ANU, James Cook University (all in Australia) as well as University of Otago (New Zealand), UCL, Durham University (UK).  I know there are many more in Europe and Asia, hopefully people can fill in the gaps in the comment section.

*You should know that if you want to eventually get a job in an American university you will need an American PhD.  Although I do know of a few exceptions to the rule, that is generally the trend.

*Update December 2019:* The US Academic job market for academic archaeologists is extremely tight. Many jobs see over 200 applicants for a single opening and Southeast Asia is a less sought after region for hiring than other parts of the world.  For this reason, I and many other archaeologists who work in universities with graduate programs are very careful about taking on students. If you’re interested in a graduate program in archaeology with a focus on Southeast Asian archaeology, the best thing you can do is communicate with your potential advisor long before applying to determine if they are a) taking students b) you are a good fit for the program.

Q. I’m just getting interested in this subject, can you recommend any books?

There are a few good overviews of Southeast Asian archaeology:

Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia by Charles Higham *Update August 2014* this has now been updated to: Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor

Southeast Asia from Prehistory to History edited by Peter Bellwood and Ian Glover

Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by Peter Bellwood [Free PDF download]

There are also some good journals with PDFs of articles you can download for free:

Asian Perspectives

Archaeological Research in Asia [Free PDF downloads not available, but some articles published Open Access]

-Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Older issue here and newer issues here. *Update August 2014*  BIPPA is now the Journal of Indo-Pacific Archaeology.

Q.  I want to work in Cambodia, what do I need to know?

I had a very fortunate experience getting started in Cambodian archaeology, but there was no planning whatsoever so I wouldn’t recommend it.  Here’s some general recommendations.

1. Find an advisor who does research in Cambodia or can help you make connections with people who do. It is hard to come into Cambodian archaeology without having a support network. Fortunately most Southeast Asian archaeologists are friendly!

2. It is helpful to learn the local language of any place you are working. I’ve had a great experience doing the intensive Khmer program at SEASSI.  However this program has lost their most effective and long-term instructors.   You can get textbooks from my teacher Lokkru Frank Smith.  I can also recommend the tutor I used when I was living in Phnom Penh.

3. Before committing to a project, try to go to Cambodia and make sure you like it. Cambodia is not necessarily an easy place to live/work, but it can be fantastic.

4. Be friendly and collegial. It’s important to be a good colleague. Working in Cambodia means being collaborative. Take on students to help train them, involve your Cambodian colleagues as equal partners on your project. Share the results of your research in a public forum in Cambodia.

5. The government body responsible for the Angkor region is the APSARA Authority.  The area around Preah Vihear temple is controlled by the Preah Vihear authority. Sambor Prei Kuk now also has its own Authority. The government body for archaeology in the rest of Cambodia is the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.  Depending on your research interests, you want to be sure that you are speaking with the correct people in each of these departments. Check their websites if you need help figuring out who to speak with.

6. Be patient. Things move slowly, your Cambodian colleagues will be overworked and underpaid.

Q. What’s a good way to meet with other people studying Southeast Asian archaeology?

A.  There are quite a few conferences including

The Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association

-The European Association for Southeast Asian Archaeology (which seems to be dormant)

-The Society for American Archaeology If you are a member, please join the Southeast Asian Archaeology Interest Group!

-The American Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists (AASEAA) has a GoogleGroup where members can communicate with one another and stay updated on the latest happenings.

Got any other advice or questions? Please add it in the comments below!

6 responses to “So, you want to be an archaeologist in Cambodia?

  1. Do you ever have any issues with UXOs or mines at your worksites?

  2. Great post! And thanks for the shout-out! 🙂

  3. @Hank- I’ve been to several sites/areas that are still mined and in those cases we always stay on well-marked paths. In the Angkor region at least, if you want to do more extensive research on a site that is mined you can put a request in with APSARA who will have CMAC come through and de-mine the area. I have heard of a colleague working on Phnom Kulen who was checking out a potential research site, only to find out later that it there was a UXO just feet from where he was standing!! But the site was cleared and he was able to do work with no problems. My friends who work in Laos seem to have to be more cautious.

  4. Great post! I especially agree with the “learn the language” part, which also holds true for my work Vietnam and has helped me enormously. I make no claims to fluency, but it’s a shame that so few of our Western colleagues working in SE Asia seem to do so…

  5. I hear archies make cash money…

  6. @Jared: LOL!